Grief as Liturgy

There is a liturgy to grief, an entire calendar of solemn commemorations juxtaposed with joyful memories.

single candleHere’s something I have learned this year, both from my own experience with loss and from listening to other people’s pain: There is a liturgy to grief, an entire calendar of solemn commemorations juxtaposed with joyful memories. When we lose a loved one, certain dates matter more than ever before. I’d like to propose that each grieving person enact a kind of liturgical calendar to that effect.

Today, for example, is the first anniversary of my mother’s inaugural trip to the emergency room. She noticed that she was having double vision and could not drive safely, so she took herself to the hospital for some tests. It was hard to imagine that this was a neurological symptom that her recently diagnosed breast cancer had already spread to the lining of her brain, since only a few weeks earlier, her PET scan had been clear.

But the vision problem was indeed caused by the cancer, as the next days would come to show. On December 5, she started falling down intermittently and became unable to control her legs. On December 8, she went into the hospital for tests and never again returned home. She died on January 3.

Why are these dates so fixed in my mind? Why am I returning inwardly this week to where I was and what I was doing this time last year?

As I have talked with other bereaved persons I’ve come to understand that my fixation on these certain dates is not unusual. Many of us do this. Consciously or unconsciously, we mark not only our ultimate loss — the day our loved one died — but many smaller losses leading up to that.

That is similar to what liturgy does. In the church calendar, we rehearse various events in the life of Jesus. Some of them are joyful, such as Christmas Day. Others are far more somber. It’s not just that we mark Jesus’ death on Good Friday; we also remember the day before that, when he was betrayed. What we call Holy Thursday was the beginning of the end, and also the end of the beginning.

Taking my cue from the way the Christian calendar blends seasons of pain with ones of joy, I decided earlier this year that I would just allow myself to feel whatever I was going to feel on significant dates related to my grief about Mom. On her birthday, I took the day off work and went to a museum she loved. I thought about the ways she allowed her life to be enriched by art and music. It felt right to honor her in this way.

And today — a year after the day when I couldn’t kid myself anymore that Mom’s cancer was something beatable – I’m going to strike back at the darkness by decking the halls with light. Tonight I’ll be dragging out decorations and ornaments, including many that I didn’t see from childhood until we packed up Mom’s house earlier this year. So many memories.

The Greek roots of the word “liturgy” have to do with public work; liturgy is literally the work of the people. Grief, too, is the work of the people. It is difficult, and it takes mindfulness and planning. But it is infinitely better when we do it together.

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